Brust, Steven: (201) The Phoenix Guards

For swashbuckling that’s certain to satisfy, I turn to Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards. In one of the “About the Author” pieces, Brust says that “Paarfi of Roundwood [the narrator] is the creation of a writer who, at first, wished the style of the French Romantics (Dumas, Sabatini, etc.) was still popular, then decided he didn’t care, and he’d bloody well write like that anyway.” (The other “About the Author” is by, yup, Paarfi about Brust. Hey, in Five Hundred Years After Brust and Paarfi actually argue with each other . . . ) Having now read Sabatini, and previously read Dumas, I have to say I like Brust-as-Paarfi better. (I wonder what Brust would think of that—flattered, appalled? Both?)

Regular readers of this book log will be unsurprised to hear that it’s the characters that make the difference. Besides André-Louis in Scaramouche, the characters in The Three Musketeers had sufficiently different moral systems that I couldn’t really sympathize with them. I just plain like the people in The Phoenix Guards better, even though they’re obviously modeled on Dumas’:

And so it was on this basis that the household was erected, with four personalities at such variance: Pel planned out his life in careful stages of which he didn’t speak, and, if one might suspect that he had more affairs of the heart than any ten normal men, at least no one could prove any of them. Tazendra never planned, but always attacked life as if the world existed purely for the pleasure it afforded her to tramp through it, laughing and gambling and loving; doing all of these far less, be it understood, than she claimed, but nevertheless enjoying the claims as much as another would have enjoyed the deeds. Aerich was of a dark disposition that seemed to thrive on the pleasures of his friends, as if pleasure for its own sake was impossible for him; yet he could take a certain measure vicariously, as it were, so that when his friends were happy, he was happy, and when his friends were sad, he was sad. Khaavren, we know, only rarely planned anything; his preference was neither to sculpt life, nor to attack it, but rather, to take everything, a blow or a kiss, just as it came, and to contrive as best he was able to take as much joy or opportunity, or as little pain or damage, as he could.

Brust says on his web page that he giggled all the way through this book, and the reader does indeed get that impression. Besides your standard (and quite fun) swordplay, court intrigues, secret identities, quests, and romances, you get delightfully silly and involved dialogue—alas, far too long for me to type at present, particularly since my favorite bit is, well, all of Chapter Six. There are also historical asides like Bengloarafurd Ford’s name, and Paarfi, who is fully a character in his own right:

And while it would be possible for us to simply relate all that followed the casting of this simplest of spells, we must admit that we would find it more amusing to delay this revelation; or rather, to find an indirect method of describing it. While the amusement of the historian may be insufficient reason to take such a circuitous route to relation of facts, rest assured we have another reason as well, that being the necessity of describing another conversation in which these very events are announced.

It would seem, therefore, that if we are to allow our readers, by virtue of being in the company of the historian, to eavesdrop on this interchange, we will have, in one scene, discharged two obligations; a sacrifice, if we may say so, to the god of Brevity, whom all historians, indeed, all who work with the written word, ought to worship. We cannot say too little on this subject.

For my own sacrifice to Brevity, I’ll just say if you can’t stand the style of the prose I’ve quoted here, or the dialogue when you flip through the book, then don’t read it. However, if it sounds at all appealing or amusing, do go seek it out.

(One does wonder if this “history” was published while Khaavren was still alive, since we know he was still active just some sixty years earlier (via Alexx’s excellent Dragaera Timeline)—and if so, just what his reaction was . . . )

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